A lot of people have said that in this new salary cap world the draft has become more important. I am not one of those who thinks this and if RFA signings like what the Oilers have done with Vanek and Penner become commonplace draft picks will become even less valuable.
The premise behind believing that the draft is now more important with the salary cap is that you no longer can buy a lot of expensive free agents to fill out your roster and if you draft smartly and can get some cheap quality young players on your roster you will be at a huge advantage. First off, I disagree with this premise from the start because unless you have one of the top picks and can draft a super-talented player, your draft pick is unlikely to make the NHL until they are 20-22 years of age and then it usually takes a year or two before they become top contributors on a team. This is especially true for defensemen and goaltenders. Players can now become unrestricted free agents at age 27 so for most players you would only get at most 3-4 productive years before they become unrestricted free agents and become expensive to resign. This differs from the old CBA where a team held a players rights until age 31 which includes most players prime years.
The other thing that has changed under the new CBA is the compensation required for restricted free agents has been reduced. This summer the Edmonton Oilers tried to pry Thomas Vanek away from Buffalo at a cost of 4 first round draft picks. Under the old CBA it would have been 5. They are also trying to pry Dustin Penner away from the Anaheim Ducks for $4.3 million per season which will cost them just a first, a second and a third round draft pick as compensation. To put that into perspective, the Atlanta Thrashers gave up Glen Metropolit, a first, a second and a third round pick to St. Louis to rent Keith Tkachuk for a couple months of service. So for the price of what some teams were paying for rental players the Oilers can get a quality young player in Dustin Penner for the next 5 years.
So with that in mind, one has to wonder why more teams wouldn’t take the route of signing restricted free agents. I suspect you will start to see it become more and more common especially for players worth up to (approximately) $4.6 million where compensation is no more than a first, second, and a third round pick. When this starts to happen it is going to drive up salaries for players aged 23-27. This is going to mean you won’t be able to draft players have have them on your roster cheaply for much longer than a couple of years and when you can’t do that, draft picks become less and less valuable as there will not be a lot of difference between paying your 24 year old drafted player $4.5 million than signing an equally talented but more experienced 27 year old unrestricted free agent for the same money. Good drafting isn’t the key to winning under the new CBA, good pro-scouting and smart team building is.